Forty years ago Bill Ayers was a leader of a Leninist group called the Weather Underground that carried out bombings of the Pentagon, the Capitol and the New York City police headquarters.
On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, Ayers became the latest celebrity in the spectacle of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly,” Stephanopoulos said to Obama, alluding to stories published in February by Bloomberg News and Politico.
Stephanopoulos asked Obama to explain his relationship with Ayers “and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem” in the November election.
Not a source of ideas for Obama
Obama dismissed Ayers, now a professor of education at the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus, as simply “a guy who lives in my neighborhood… who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.”
But, as Clinton pointed out a few seconds later, Obama had omitted one relevant fact: Obama and Ayers served together on the board of a Chicago foundation called The Woods Fund from 1999 to 2002.
What didn’t come up in the debate is that Bill Clinton, too, had a connection to Ayers, albeit an indirect one.
David Lytel, who worked in the White House for President Clinton from 1993 to 1996 as the White House “web master” and helped create the Whitehouse.gov web site, left in April 1996 and formed Democrats Online, one of the earliest political advocacy sites.
Fundraiser for White House alumnus
During the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, Ayers and his wife, Weather Underground alumna Bernardine Dohrn, hosted a fundraiser at their Chicago home for Democrats Online.
Lytel said Friday that no one from the Clinton White House showed up for the 1996 event.
He added, “I’m a Clinton supporter, but I think it’s the absolute height of stupidity” and “preposterous” for her to try to use the Ayers connection as a weapon against Obama. “This is an insane way for her to try to define her opponent.”
“I have no reason to think that Ayers is anything other than smart, skeptical American,” Lytel said. “He’s like anyone else who has activities in his past that might be embarrassing to them as a middle-aged person.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as terrorist-hijacked planes were slamming into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the New York Times published on the front page of its Arts & Culture section a sympathetic story about Ayers, who was promoting his book, Fugitive Days, about his ten years as a fugitive from justice.
The Times story referred to “daring acts in his youth,” by which it meant his role in bombing the Pentagon and the Capitol.
“I don’t regret setting bombs,” Ayers told the Times. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”
A coincidence on Sept. 11, 2001
It was quite a coincidence: a story about an admitted American terrorist that happened to appear in New York’s biggest newspaper on the morning that the city was under attack by al Qaida terrorists.
Neither the Times nor Ayers could have known that New York was to be attacked that morning and that his violent past would suddenly appear in a different light.
Clinton was glaring at Obama during Wednesday night’s debate as she noted that the statements by Ayers in the Times “were deeply hurtful to people in New York.”
She added that “this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising” if Obama is the Democratic nominee.
One might think that after televised debates and countless news stories, the American electorate would know everything there is to be known about Obama.
But Clinton and her aides have contended from the beginning of the campaign that while all the points on which Republicans will attack her are well-known, there’s more still to be discovered about Obama.
Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain seemed to imply the same argument in his interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Tuesday night when he said, referring to Obama, “I don’t really know him.”
Obama's supporters annoyed
Since Clinton discussed the Ayers connection Wednesday night, Obama and his allies have voiced annoyance that he was asked about Ayers.
Obama told Stephanopoulos it was wrong to see his connection to Ayers as significant “regardless of how flimsy the relationship is.” He said it was false to suggest Ayers’s ideas “could be attributed to me.”
Obama’s supporters at Moveon.org started an anti-ABC petition drive claiming that ABC’s debate interrogators Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson were “obsessed with distractions that only political insiders care about.”
To some degree, the Obama campaign itself was keeping the ruckus alive Thursday night, sending out an e-mail reminding reporters that President Clinton had issued pardons to Weather Underground convicts Susan Rosenberg and Linda Evans.
If Obama ends up as the Democratic nominee and if Bill Ayers is, as Moveon.org contends, merely one of the “trivial questions” that don’t matter to voters, then it will be futile for the Republicans to try to use the Ayers connection against Obama in the fall.
But a Democratic primary open only to registered Democrats such as the one on Tuesday in Pennsylvania can’t be a fully adequate test of that proposition since no Republicans will be voting in it.